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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese tourists eager to see art treasures heisted from China decades ago have swamped a famed Taiwan museum, forcing it to deploy crowd-control measures and fuelling a huge expansion.
As many as 15,000 visitors per day have pushed time and space limits at the National Palace Museum, which holds ancient art treasures that Taiwan's Nationalists (KMT) took from China in the 1940s when they fled to the island in the middle of civil war.
Last week, one of the Chinese guides died of a heart attack.
To control the noisy, excitable tourists, as well as preventing wall-to-wall crowds, the world-renowned 24,000 square-meter museum housing some 654,500 exhibits has asked the Chinese to step into line.
Tourists must queue outside the most popular exhibit, a jade cabbage, and must observe the keep-quiet signs, said museum Director Chou Kung-shin. Tour guides are also asked to break up larger groups.
"We've made some special plans to spread them out," Chou told Reuters. "Sometimes they talk loudly, but we have our means of letting them know not to."
Chinese tourists are often told ahead of arrival in Taiwan to avoid spitting, shouting and other behavior common in China, local travel agents say.
To further ease crowding, the museum will install an escalator across its vast promenade and staircase.
And as the number of Chinese tourists is seen increasing, Chou said, the museum will expand by more than five hectares over the next four years, adding structures worth about $18 million for modern-ancient art exhibits, a teahouse and a hotel.
China has claimed Taiwan self-ruled since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
But since China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in Taiwan last May, relations have improved quickly.
A record 63,277 people from China have visited the museum in March as part of a recent surge in tourism, spearheaded by officials on both sides, following a slow start last year. February saw just 21,000 Chinese visitors.
Beijing also has a Palace Museum and has not renounced seizing Taiwan-based treasures if they were sent to China on loan, Chou said. As the two sides discuss swaps, she said, Taiwan is waiting for China to change its seizure laws.
Chinese tourists regard the Taiwan museum as a must-see.
"Their first reaction is that these treasures were taken out of China," said Anthony Liao, a tour operator and Taipei Association of Travel Agents official.
"But for them Taiwan isn't another country. It's domestic."
Editing by Miral Fahmy